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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

July-August 2011

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Understanding Public Opinion on Climate Change: A Call for Research

There is strong scientific consensus concerning the reality of anthropogenic climate change (CC) and its potential consequences.1 However, increased confidence among scientists has not translated into a public consensus within the United States.2 Indeed, numerous polls indicate a decline in public acceptance of CC over the past two to three years (although some polls show a slight uptick since mid-2010). For example, Gallup Polls, trends for which appear in the figure here, show substantial declines from 2008 to 2010 in the percentages of Americans believing that global warming is already occurring (61 percent to 50 percent); that it is due more to human activities than natural changes (58 percent to 50 percent); and that most scientists believe it is occurring (65 percent to 52 percent).3

Even prior to the recent decline in Americans' acceptance of CC, cross-national surveys consistently found that the U.S. public was less likely to believe that CC is occurring and poses a problem than do citizens in most other wealthy nations.4 This uniquely high level of skepticism and the recent decline in public acceptance of CC are a challenge to the scientific community and call for increased examination of the factors influencing public opinion on CC. Although certainly a lack of public understanding is part of the problem, assuming more information will lead to greater public acceptance of the reality and seriousness of CC and greater support for CC policies5,6 is overly simplistic. Rather, a more nuanced analytical framework is required to meet this challenge. We know a great deal about the public's views of CC, but for effective communication and development of public support for climate policies we need to know far more.

Sandra T. Marquart-Pyatt, Thomas Dietz, Stan A. Kaplowitz, and Aaron M. McCright are members of the Department of Sociology, Michigan State University.

Rachael L. Shwom is a member of the Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University.

Riley E. Dunlap is a member of the Department of Sociology, Oklahoma State University.

Sammy Zahran is a member of the Department of Economics, Colorado State University.

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